Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

JCVD

 
Review by David Tredler

There was a time when Jean-Claude Van Damme was a high-ranked action star in Hollywood. The kind of star that drew millions of fans to see his movies everywhere, from New York to Caracas, from Berlin to Bangkok. Kickboxing, sci-fi, comic book or video-game adaptations, Van Damme has been the hero of it all. And then he tumbled and fell, for excess of confidence, excess of ego, excess of drugs. For the past few years, his movies have been almost consistantly small-budget productions shot in Eastern Europe and destined for the direct-to-DVD market exclusively.

How on Earth was it ever conceived that one day, Van Damme would be offered the chance to prove his acting talents in his native French language? The project was born in the mind of a bunch of French screenwriters who were fans of Van Damme and who wanted to put the man back in the spotlight. The script was polished by a young director, Mabrouk El-Mechri, who himself had a poster of Van Damme in his room when he was a kid.

JCVD  was created out of love for the actor, and the question was, is it possible to be smitten with such a fim if you did not grow up worshipping Van Damme’s martial arts skills?  The answer is most definitely positive. Two kinds of people will go see JCVD: The fans of the “Muscles from Brussels”, who will get what they came for:  an action movie offering Van Damme his best role to date;  the others will be the curious, who were never particularly drawn to Van Damme, but are open-minded (most people just won’t go see it, you know, because they will just see it as another Van Damme B-movie… and they’d be so, SO wrong).

I did not grow up with a poster of Van Damme on my wall. I don’t think I ever went to see one of his movies in theaters when I was a teenager. I actually only started getting interested in Van Damme when he fell off his pedestal. When his movies stopped playing in theaters. I was not so much interested in the movies, but with the persona.  And JCVD  takes the losing side of the man as the basis of the film: Van Damme is exhausted. He just shot yet another action movie in Eastern Europe, is out of money, and about to lose his kid in a bitter divorce battle. He can’t take it anymore and goes back to his native Belgium to rest. In a bank to retrieve money, Van Damme suddenly gets involved in a bank heist that quickly interests the media when they hear the man could be the perpetrator of the heist. But what is really going on in there?

What’s really going on, it turns out, is not the most fascinating part of the movie. The whole bank heist / action movie aspect of JCVD  is not the most original, and with an over-stylized look, is a bit too much. Yet there is something fascinating in JCVD. The other side of the film, the side that is the laid bare portrait of Van Damme. The actor participating in a self-mocking project, where he displays a remarkable humility, concerning his position in cinema, his age, his drugs troubles, his career mistakes.

More than anything, JCVD is fascinating thanks to Van Damme’s astonishing acting performance. Yes, you read that right. The man had already quickly appeared in a French film a few years back where he showed a real presence onscreen. Here, Van Damme takes us by surprise in a riveting dramatic performance I think no one thought the man capable of.  It’s not just about playing himself, it’s also a natural charisma that allows him to express a lot with simple gestures and expressions, either in this long, extraordinary steady one take shot when Van Damme talks directly to the camera, or in short sequences when the man barely whispers. The man has a natural capacity for acting.

JCVD is far from being a perfect film. The director probably saw too many Guy Ritchie  movies for his own good and wanted to make something different, probably too different (although the cop in charge of the crisis is hilarious and brings a lot of humor). But his admiration for Van Damme gave him the guts to offer the man the role of his career, and in the process, offer him the chance to prove that at almost 50 years old, Van Damme is still an impressive action star (as seen in the opening sequence of the film, a jaw-dropping one-take action scene that also reminds us that the European actor was the first, in Occident, to take an interest and collaborate with Hong Kong maestros John Woo, Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam).

But now all we want to know is: when are French producers going to offer meaty acting roles for Van Damme?  Time will tell.

3 ½ / 5 stars

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